2006: Books 99-90

90. Liberators: Latin America's Struggle for Independence, Robert Harvey

I bought this book specifically for my Peru trip so that I could learn more about region before I went. I wanted to get a book about the Incas and Conquistadors, but the downtown Barnes and Noble South America section is a little thin, so I settled for Liberators, which told the story of seven men who were instrumental in Latin America's liberation from the Spanish and Portuguese empire: Francisco de Miranda, Simon Bolivar, Jose de San Martin, Bernando O'Higgins, Thomas, Lord Cochrane, Augustin de Iturbide, and Dom Pedro I. It was a fascinating book - I knew almost nothing about the Latin American revolution(s) except for the name Bolivar - and I learned tons. It was a little slow going, particularly the sections that went into great detail about military maneuvers and battle plans, which always baffle me (I have no spatial sense, and can never really follow what happened), but once I started to skim that part, I thought the book was great. The wars were so different from the American revolution - longer, bloodier, more dramatic (i.e., hiking an entire Army over the Andes), and the revolutionaries were a far cry from Adams, Washington and Jefferson. They were larger than life, romantic figures, and while I am glad that our revolution was fought by lawyers, reading about the South Americans made for a hell of a book.

Date/Place Completed: 9/02/06, flying home from Peru

91. The Moviegoer, Walker Percy

The Moviegoer is set in New Orleans, in the late 1950's/early 1960's. It tells the story of Binx Bolling, a young man about to turn thirty, and who spends his time watching movies, living in the suburbs, and avoid life. He has no aspirations and hope - he is drift, a great disappointment to his family, especially his aunt. He wakes up one morning and embarks for a quest for authenticity, taking his battered and fragile cousin Kate along, and in the end, finds a sort of meaning for himself through his experience with her. It's a beautiful book, and I feel it's a true one - certainly there are men like Binx, who are alienated from life and aren't living up to their potential, and I imagine there were a great deal of such men among the disaffected Korean War vets returning to 1950's America. I underlined passages of the book that seemed true - both in terms of the voice of Binx, and just flat out true, even to me, an uptight type A on track Washington lawyer. But I must admit that I have a hard time with stories like this. Part of me always wants to shake the fragile, disaffected young man, and tell him to get a job and snap out of it. Be productive like the rest of us. And then I feel like that makes me (at least in the eyes of narrator, if not the author) the small minded shallow bourgeoise character that the book is railing against. The same characteristics that were charming to me in Holden Caufield are troublesome in Binx Bolling - but is it me, or is it Binx who is in the wrong? And is the author on his side, or is it a portrait of disaffected youth? Or is it both?

Date/Place Completed: 9/06/06, Detroit, MI; The Modern Library Project

92. All The King's Men, Robert Penn Warren

What a book! This is evidently the year for reading life-changing, new favorite book classics, because I loved this as much (if not more) than East of Eden. My dad was the one who pushed me to read All the King's Men, since he had just finished it and loved it. I was wary - I thought it would be the story of Huey Long, or a Huey Long like character, and I didn't think I needed to read a book like that. Boy, was I wrong - everyone needs to read All the King's Men, because it is a remarkable book. It also was a perfect counterpoint to The Moviegoer. Like The Moviegoer, it tells the story of a young Southern man who is lost, and searching for meaning in life, but while Binx Bolling turns his back on genteel society and spends his lost time at the movies, Jack Burden (the narrator of All the King's Men), turns his back on genteel society and spends his time working for Willie Stark, the demogogic governor of an unnamed Southern state (read, Louisiana or Mississipi).

Willie Stark is the more famous character, the one people who haven't read the book have heard of - the one played by Sean Penn in the most recent film version,* but Jack Burden is the one that caught my attention, as he struggles with what kind of man he wants to be and how to live his life, and who he really is. But honestly, the book has everything - politics and ethics and love stories and fathers and sons and class issues - all wrapped up in gorgeous and moving writing. A great, great book. The characters are real, and the plotting is engaging and honestly, I can't wait to re-read All the King's Men.

*Which is getting totally panned, so you should read the book instead!!

Date/Place Completed: 9/09/06, Washington DC; Modern Library Project 

93. The Road to Wellville, T. Coraghessan Boyle

If I am to be completely honest, I must admit that I bought this book because I had wanted to see the movie version when it first came out. I was younger then (14, maybe?) and the movie was pretty resoundingly panned, so I have never seen it, but when I saw the book for sale in my favorite used book store, and I needed a fifth book anyway (buy four get the fifth free!) I thought, well, what the hell. And yes, T.C. Boyle* is a great award-winning author, who I have read before and enjoyed,** but it was the movie that popped in my head and compelled me to grab the book. Now you know all my secrets; please don't judge me.

The book was ok - much like the other book of his that I read, Riven Rock, Boyle takes an extremely interesting topic in American history and writes a novel about it that doesn't interest me quite as much as the topic should. Here he is writing about the health fads that swept America at the turn of the century, focusing on the Kellogg spa in Battle Creek Michigan. That was an absolutely zany period of history, as Doctor Kellogg (brother of the cereal maker) was something of a quack - the "medical" treatments (which largely focus on the colon) described are nothing short of horrifying. Boyle adeptly captures how wierd they were, and makes you root for the characters who don't buy into the party line - Will Lightbody, who is being destroyed by Kellogg's treatments, and Charlie Ossining, who is trying to make a buck in the health food racket.

But as much as I wanted to finish the book and find out what happened to the characters, the reading of it was unsettling at best and boring at worst. The descriptions of the treatments were way too graphic and made me ill, and the middle of the book meandered - a leaner version of the story would have been much more compelling, and interesting. I felt like I was trapped for eternity in the spa with Will. Maybe that was Boyle's intent, but frankly, the vacillation between between graphic intestinal procedures and long stretches at the spa distracted from the interesting plot. I would read more Boyle, but I'm not in a rush to do so. At least reading the book has quelled my desire to watch the film!

* The less pretentious moniker that he now sells his books under.

** But more his short fiction, which I read in McSweeney's, than the novel I read, Riven Rock.

Date/Place Completed: 9/10/06, Washington DC

94. Veronica, Mary Gaitskill

My book club chose this book to read because it came highly recommended by critics. A New York Times best book of the year. A National Book Critics Circle Award finalist. Bookslut couldn't stop raving about it. And I understand why. This is a very well written book, and even better, it is a well written book about ugly things and sad thoughts, which is always a critical favorite. But when I compare this book to a book like East of Eden or All the King's Men, it strikes me as so cold and empty and miserable. There is no joy in Veronica. I don't mean that there is no happy ending - lots of great books don't have happy endings - but there is nothing that seems redemptive to me at all about this book. Gaitskill is enormously talented, no doubt. But why put that skill to such a sad and miserable end? It strikes me as misery for misery's sake. I'm all for darkness, but this book reminded me of Mr. Carpenter from the L.M. Montgomery's Emily books, who reminded us that there was just as much skill in writing well about beautiful things than ugly ones.

The book is about Alison, a former model who is now down on her luck, suffering from hepatitis and poverty in L.A. She reflects back on her life - her sad parents, her failed modelling career, and her friendship with Veronica. Veronica is a middle-aged office temp, in love with a bisexual who treats her terribly, eccentric for eccentricity's sake, and ultimately, a victim of AIDS. Alison is both repulsed and fond of Veronica, and their odd friendship is the backbone of the book. The thing about the book is that Alison is a boring and miserable character - her life is sad and empty, and while her experiences feel real, she is somewhat of a cipher. We see into her every thought, but never really understand why she let her life become so awful. Veronica, at least, is understandable. She fell in love with the wrong man and couldn't let go. Alison just seems to be without agency - floating from one bad situation to another. Maybe a book from Veronica's perspective would have been more engaging, more life-affirming. Not life-affirming in the sense that we need to be happy and cheery (Veronica would hate that!), but in the sense that Veronica had a life, even if it wasn't such a great one. Alison was just a leaf on the wind, and a leaf isn't really an interesting character to read a book about.

Huh. I guess I didn't really like the book.

Date/Place Completed: 9/17/06, Washington DC

95. Frankenstein, Mary Shelley

I knew, going into this book, that it was different from the movie versions,* and when it first started, with the ship on the polar ice floes seeing Frankenstein’s monster run by, and then picking up the almost dead Frankenstein, I thought it was awesome. Very creepy and atmospheric and all that. But then Frankenstein started to tell his story, and even worse the monster started to tell his story, and the book totally loses momentum. There is absolutely a creepy and archetypal story buried in here that says great things about hubris and science and is scary as hell, and it was very impressive that a 19 year old girl was able to come up with such a scary story. But it is buried under a whole bunch of romantic and philosophic talk, and quotes from Byron and Shelley (Mary’s husband), and the story gets lost under the preaching. I hate to say it, but I think the version of this story that Hollywood told is just better – more scary, less talking.

Also, the book does not make it clear how Frankenstein’s monster (Frankenstein is the scientist, not the monster) was made. Is it a dead body? Human body parts? Something else? Enquiring minds want to know.

* Although, to be perfectly fair the only movie versions I have actually seen is Young Frankenstein, which is possibly the funniest movie of all time, and Gods and Monsters, which is really a meta story about the director of the Frankenstein movies, and being gay in 1930’s Hollywood (and also a really awesome movie).

Date/Place Completed: 9/20/06, Flying to Detroit

96. The Memory Keeper’s Daughter, Kim Edwards

This is the kind of book I would like to write some day. It reminds me of Anne Patchett’s work (for which I have no higher praise). It just tells a story about human beings and a terrible thing that happened and how it affected everyone’s life and how sad and awful that was. And at the end, the secret comes out, as secrets usually do, and some redemption is found, but the past isn’t erased and things aren’t magically better. This is a book about life and how messy and terrible and beautiful it can be. And it’s not cheesy or trashy. It’s extremely well-written and true to its characters and true to life.

It tells the story of Dr. David Henry, who, on a winter's day in 1964, has to deliver his own child in a snowstorm. The baby turns out to be twins, and one twin has Down’s syndrome. Henry tells his nurse to take the child to an institution and tells his wife that the child has died. Appalled with the conditions at the institution, the nurse, Caroline keeps the baby and raises it as her own. Dr. Stanton is not a bad man, but the split-second decision he makes changes his entire life, and the book tells the story of what happens in the aftermath of his choice - to him, his family and to Caroline and her family.

I really enjoyed The Memory Keeper’s Daughter, and I think it’s the kind of story that gets short-changed by critics. There are rave reviews printed on the back cover, but this sort of story usually doesn’t get the kind of press as a book like Veronica or The Accidental. I can't help but feel that stories like this, especially when written by a woman, get short-changed by the critical press, and are looked down upon for telling women's and family's stories. The books get that critic's awards are the showy and the cold and the ugly, but it is just as difficult to (if not more so) to write a book about real people and emotion and the human experience. My mom lent me this book, and I honestly might not have come across it otherwise. I didn't see anything about it in the hipster literary websites or the book press and I just hadn't heard about it. Now this book is a best-seller, so the word is out, but how many other great stories have I missed because they aren't lauded by the literary scene? Lesson learned, by me at least, and I am going to have to keep asking my mom what good books I haven't heard of!

Date/Place Completed: 9/22/06, Detroit

97. The Known World, Edward P. Jones

This is a fabulous book. It is complex, and epic in scope, filled with symbolism and addresses the darkest issue in American history – slavery – while still managing to tell an interesting, heartfelt and compelling story. Jones writes about an odd and unknown footnote of American history, the notion that there were some free blacks who owned slaves themselves. He tells the story of Henry Townsend’s plantation. Henry is a black farmer and former slave who becomes the protégé of his former owner, the most powerful man in the county. Under his guidance (and to the eternal shame of Henry’s parents, who worked so hard to buy his freedom), he becomes a plantation owner and a slave master. The book touches on everyone from the local sheriff, a white man uncomfortable with slavery – though owning one slave himself - to the smallest slave child, and casts an unflinching eye on the bizarre machinations and hypocrisies that people needed to participate in to live in a world where men owned other men. Jones understands just how awful slavery was – not only for the slaves, but how it blackened the soul of every person who came into contact with the system. A great, enjoyable and thought-provoking book.

Date/Place Completed: 9/22/06, Flying home from Detroit

98.  I Hated, Hated, Hated This Movie, Roger Ebert

This is a fun re-read. It’s a collection of Roger Ebert’s movies reviews, but only of films to which he gave two stars or less. Many of them are really, really funny - it’s always a hoot to see a talented critic really let go. And, since Ebert really knows what he is talking about when it comes to film, the book is instructive, especially when he is talking about ways the films could have been made more interesting. I particularly liked the notion that what makes a bad film bad is that the writers come up with an idea (“girl and boy both have the same dog!”) and stop there. Good writers push the idea to the next level or the level beyond that, making for more complex and more interesting pictures.

The title comes from his review of the movie North, of which he says, “I hated this movie. Hated hated hated hated hated this movie. Hated it.” Hee! If you like film and like to read criticism, this is a pretty light, but really enjoyable read.

Date/Place Completed: 9/23/06, Washington, D.C.

99.  The Blue Castle, L.M. Montgomery

This is absolutely one of my favorite books of all time. I was walking home last Saturday, and suddenly Valancy popped in my head, and I immediately picked up The Blue Castle, and read it cover to cover, non-stop, until I was done, and a satisfied smile was on my face.

It is the story of Valancy Stirling, who, at 29 years old, has never lived a moment of her life. She is an “old maid” (the book is set in the 1910’s, I believe), who is cowed by her mother and snubbed by her clan, and has nothing at all but fear and depression in her life. Then one day she gets a piece of news (and I’m not saying what, so you will have to read it) that changes her whole life, and she decides to live. The story of Valancy’s reformation is so charming and lovely and heartfelt, and the book is absolutely enjoyable and Valancy is a treat. And Barney! Oh, Barney!

I don’t want to say more. I want you to read this book, and love it.*

*On an odd note, I am pretty sure that Colleen McCullough (of The Thorn Birds fame) ripped this book off for a book she wrote called The Ladies of Missalonghi. I don’t know if this is a well known thing, but I read both, and McCullough stole Montogmery’s plot, hook, line and sinker. Boo, Colleen.

Date/Place Completed: 9/24/06, Washington, D.C.; L.M. Montgomery Project

© Carrie Dunsmore 2017